I have never sat through a commencement address; I have never managed to finish watching a recommended one on YouTube; and I certainly have not ever read one to the end. (The other day, in a bookstore, I noticed a little book containing an apparently famous one delivered by David Foster Wallace; I couldn’t finish that either, and that’s saying something because I’ve been given to understand that it bucks a trend I note below.) I’m not sure from whence stems my antipathy to this form of oratory. Perhaps because I find the very idea incredibly pompous and suffused with a ludicrous self-importance: hundreds of young men and women sitting, patiently, listening to some ‘inspirational speaker’, providing advice, reminding them of the importance of their accomplishment, and providing a road-map ‘for what lies ahead.’ Some of the content of the commencement speeches is witty–but too much seems like second-rate witticisms–and perhaps some of it is sage advice, but too often it is redolent with bromides and clichés. I’ve come now to suspect, in perhaps excessively cantankerous fashion, that the commencement ceremony is a gigantic rip-off, a modern-day opportunity to make money for cap-n-gown manufacturers and photographers. And for extremely self-satisfied college administrators to preen and strut.
My personal history of graduation ceremony attendance is quite dismal. I did not attend my undergraduate graduation ceremony because I had already left for the US; I attended my master’s because my mother was keen to see photos (I described this as providing proof that I had attended classes while away from home); lastly, I did not attend my doctoral commencement because I was away, working on my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia. At Brooklyn College, when called upon to do so twice in my capacity as a professor, I have been out-of-town on one occasion, and on the second, attended for as long as I could before leaving. In my own case, my absences were convenient but I would not have attended anyway; I knew I would find the ceremonies tedious in the extreme. (When I finished my Ph.D, I knew I had no intention of attending my commencement; the graduation ceremony would have felt like an interruption; the course of study completed, work lay ahead; to finish the doctoral degree was to complete the proverbial jump from the frying pan to the fire; I did not need to attend my commencement for my PhD to experience closure, that had already been achieved in far more satisfying fashion by my doctoral defense, where my thesis advisors had tested me in the presence of my peers.)
At the heart of this antipathy, I suspect, lies a dislike for such a curiously non-egalitarian setting, one redolent of political rallies and propaganda-and-ideology-dispensation.The students sit in the audience, they are made to file in, in order, and to be seated; administrators and other sundry big-guns take the stage; the only student to speak is the valedictorian (just a reminder folks, that grades are really the most important thing!), and then, the commencement speaker, whose ‘success’ in life more often than not, meets well-accepted societal norms. (Will we have one chosen from Occupy Wall Street in this graduation season?) The standard commencement ceremony reeks of temples and stadiums, of priests and kings and their subjects. I’d rather celebrate educational accomplishment some other way.
Note: I’m well aware that many students find these ceremonies extremely important for a variety of reasons; on which, more anon.